Portrait Intérieur by Pierre Peeters (photographer) and Christine Ciselet (author) book was published in 1980 and is an ode to the life and culture of a particular neighbourhood in Brussels, namely The Marolles. This is one of the oldest (medieval) quarters of the Belgian capital.
Peeters is showing us a life which is not lived at all before a computer screen. Most of the time, the Marolliens are spending their time in the public space: on the pavements of the narrow streets or in one of the dozens of local pubs. All of Peeters’ subjects seem to share a happy and peaceful state of mind. They smile, laugh, sing, dance and play …. together.
© Pierre Peeters
But, although there are a few photographs showing young children playing in the streets, we mostly see older men wearing caps and women wearing aprons. And yes, in one of their modest living rooms we also can already observe a first generation television screen. It is one of these giant things that has been dragged into the room like a wardrobe. And it has been dragged, straight to the dining table.
© Pierre Peeters
You will not be surprised, the book deals with the disappearance of this microcosmos, which, after all, was the Marolles subculture. The accompanying text does not cast the slightest doubt about it. This vivid kind of local life, along with its particular and rich local language, was in 1980 retreating very fast from reality in Belgium.
According to the text, “the Marolliens” referred to themselves as “Indians in a reservation” and they vehemently expressed their loathing for “the renovations” that were forced upon them. An inhabitant is quoted saying “These renovations are just façades behind which “they” do what “they” want“. Another Marollien, who washes himself in the sink (he does not have a shower), is quoted saying that “their comfort” and “their hygiene” is not going to replace the life he loves.
Christine Cicelet relates these quotes to a more general observation about the disappearance of small communities and their particular cultures all over the world. “Communities have been touched in the smallest pockets of humanity. It has happened as often in Asia, as in Africa or in America and it has even happened in Europe, where “the model habitat” also has become the privileged argument of the authorities to accomplish the destruction of all the rare communities, which were still surviving.”
Another Marollien is quoted saying: “”They” do not understand our way of life which is questioning theirs …… that is why “they” prefer to destroy us so that “they” can continue thinking that their kind of life is superior.”
© Pierre Peeters
The text never really clarifies who would be “they” but “they” have been very succesful in the destruction of the life and culture of the Marolliens. Today, the neighbourhood has lost nearly all its pubs and also the majority of its original inhabitants (or their descendants). Parts of the neigbourhood are being gentrified while other parts have been left in a poor state to immigrants from overseas.
One of the reasons why we like Portrait Intérieur, which was made in tempore non suspectu (before the rise of the anti-immigrant discourses in Belgian politics), is that – at least – it does not blame the immigrants for the destruction of The Marolles.
But the finest quality of the book remains the feeling of its pictures. They remind us of the Café Lehmitz portraits by Anders Petersen (are Peeters and Petersen maybe brothers from different mothers?) although the scenery in Portrait Intérieur is less exciting or dramatic. Maybe, Peeters’ photographs also don’t have the movie-like blacks and whites of the pictures in Café Lehmitz. Nearly all of the them are just straightforward portraits in soft tones.
But very quickly it becomes clear that their simplicity is only apparent. There is a whole lot of communication going on between the eyes of the photographer and the eyes of his subjects who have generously let unfold their lifes before the camera. You can feel that it took Peeters a precious kind of friendliness and dignified qualities to realise the portraits of the last Marolliens. And we all know that it takes exactly these precious qualities to be able to live in a neighbourhood with such fellows.
Thank you very much Mr. Peeters!